On a sunny Monday morning in Los Angeles, early February feels more like summer as the city meanders through another mini-heatwave. In the air-conditioned refuge of a hotel lobby, 5 Magazine sits across from Louie Vega, who’s dressed in jeans and a t-shirt that reads “NYC SALSA.”
In that outfit, he’d likely be freezing back East in his hometown of New York City, where during the previous weekend he attended the 60th annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden. It was his second time nominated in as many years, this time for his remix of Loleatta Holloway’s “Can’t Let You Go.” It was the 11th time the ceremony was held in New York since it started being televised in 1971, but the first during which Vega was also a nominee. “To have it at home was really special,” he says.
That night, the iconic venue served as not only recognition of the Bronx-born veteran’s current contributions to music, but also as a reminder of how far he’s come. Back in 1991, Vega released When the Night is Over, a joint album with a young freestyle singer named Marc Anthony. The LP featured collaborations with Latin jazz icons Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente, the latter of whom invited Vega and Anthony to open for him at The Garden for his 100th album release party the following year. Accompanied by a full band and another vocalist, India, the duo performed their album, closing the set with a rousing jam session.
“I told Marc and India they needed to ad-lib like Héctor Lavoe and Celia Cruz did back in the day,” recalls Vega. “When we did that show, you had record executive Ralph Mercado, may he rest in peace, and David Maldonado saying, ‘This is the future of salsa music.'”
Following that breakthrough performance, Anthony crossed over into salsa superstardom, while for Vega, the seeds had been planted for all the collaborative work that would define much of his own illustrious career. Beyond his solo endeavors, he formed multiple prolific house music projects with Kenny Dope including Masters At Work, Kenlou, and Nuyorican Soul. With his Elements of Life band, he fused dance music with jazz, soul, and sounds from the African and Latin diaspora.
Over the years, Vega has worked with bona fide music icons (Roy Ayers, George Benson, and George Clinton are just a few) as well as newer-school acts such as Soul Clap, Nick Monaco, and The Martinez Brothers. His strength, however, isn’t necessarily who he works with, but how he works with them. As he tells 5 Mag of his many projects – and there are many – it’s clear that through his music, this master collaborator at work is also a connector of spheres: of past and future, of places, and of genres.
Here, he discusses going for Grammy gold, the educational power of remixes, and the albums he has in the works.
This interviewed has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Elements of Life will be making their first Chicago appearance on Saturday, May 26th at the Chicago House Music Festival at Pritzker Pavilion. For more details visit chicagohousemusicfestival.us. Photo by Robert Gay (Tehuti Films).
Congratulations on your nomination this year! That makes twice in two years.
Yes, two times in two years. Altogether seven nominations, one win. It’s a dream, and especially with our music. The records that were nominated were really the authentic house sound, so I’m really proud of it.
This year, you were nominated for your remix of Loleatta Holloway’s “Can’t Let You Go.” What’s your connection to Loleatta and this song?
Loleatta… I mean, she’s a big part of my life. Her music was there since the beginning, since I was a child. Her music has been a big inspiration to me. If you remember the Nuyorican Soul album, one of the songs we remade was “Runaway,” which was a Loleatta Holloway song. Loleatta’s been a huge inspiration for lots of us, and her music is played in all my sets, whether it’s one of her songs or one of her acapellas. So to work with her, or her voice actually, since she’s no longer around, it was a dream come true, especially having a song that never came out.
Yvonne Turner, who was the producer, wrote and produced “Can’t Let You Go,” and recorded Loleatta in the ’90s, and she saved this track for many years. One day she just reached out and said, “Louie, I’d love for you to release this record; I think it’s something that she would have loved.” I knew Loleatta: we were on the same shows together in Japan and New York, and I’d gone to see her countless times – I’d go up and say hello to her and we’d talk a little. Yvonne and I have also been friends for many years. She had been making a lot of hits in the mid- to late-’80s, and she’s worked with the greats and made great underground records that we all love.
So when she brought me this record, she said the home for it had to be on Vega Records, and it was a true honor. So I put out the record, but before I put it out I was like, let me do a remix of it just to give it another twist. So I came up with a few remixes, and next thing I know it was nominated for a Grammy. I was excited because to be nominated with Loleatta is the ultimate – to me, if anything was to come after the album I made last year that was nominated, this would be perfect.
You also recently remixed Sylvester’s 1978 single “Dance (Disco Heat),” which turns 40 this year. What’s the story behind that?
Wow, I didn’t even realize it turned 40 this year. I’m doing a project on Nervous Records, and Nervous Records also owns SAM Records, which is owned by Sam Weiss, Michael Weiss’s father. SAM Records put out a lot of big disco hits, R&B, soul… a lot of great music with artists who are out of this world. So I started remixing a few records from the SAM catalog: John Davis & the Monster Orchestra’s “Bourgie, Bourgie” and “Up Jumped the Devil,” “Let’s Do It” with Convertion and Leroy Burgess, Vicky D’s “This Beat is Mine”…
I started getting this thing going and thought, I’m doing a lot of these disco record remixes and original productions. I was just having fun in the studio, and I was having a lot of fun with the Sylvester record – I’ve always loved that record. It was a big commercial record; it might have been his first single that really blew up – and I decided to go in and mess around with it. I got in touch with Cindy Mizelle, who sang these great backgrounds, and I asked her to re-sing the hooks of the original Sylvester song as we came up with new hooks for the song and put in some organ solos, taking it to a different place but at the same time keeping the integrity of the original hooks and putting that house vibe with the disco vibe.
The objective was to do a whole album based on the SAM Records catalog, but then I started bringing out records like Sylvester, so I said, Mike, let me add these different things that have nothing to do with SAM Records but still pay homage to disco in our way, and mix the sounds of today with the original vibe. The project was kind of turning into a disco album, so as I kept making more and more records, I created an entire album called NYC Disco.
So this thing’s gotten a lot bigger, but the Sylvester remix was what catapulted it because it reached a younger generation around the world. In the UK they were playing it on BBC: Monki plays a show on there and started playing it to a younger audience, and now Annie Mac is playing it and she’s one of the biggest DJs on Radio 1. I think it set another tone; it’s appealing to a younger generation now. So now it’s turned into a whole album project that’s almost finished, and it’s going to come out maybe around the end of April. Who knows, it might be something that works for the Grammys again.
It’s great that producers can use remixes to expose their audience, especially younger listeners, to artists that it might not have previously known. When deciding to remix singers like Loleatta and Sylvester, is that something you take into account?
Of course. For me, they are our heroes. I grew up with a lot of their music and played a lot of their music throughout my career. I feel that some of these kids today, they don’t know who some of these artists are, and how instrumental they were in making the music that we make today with dance music. So it is a bit of an educational thing where we’re showing these kids where we come from, and it’s cool because you start Googling names like Loleatta Holloway, and you’re going to find Salsoul and Vince Montana. I see there’s a lot more interest, that the younger generation is reaching out and wanting to know where it came from.
For the NYC Disco album, something interesting that I did was a duet with Rochelle Fleming from First Choice and Barbara Tucker. It was cool because I took someone who was a huge influence and icon from the disco generation, and then I took another influence and icon from the house generation, and combined them on this record called “Love Having You Around,” which was a song that Stevie Wonder wrote many years ago. I’m really excited about it.
Kenny Dope and I – I think what separated us from other house producers was that we brought a lot of culture into house music. For us, it was important to bring Latin rhythms, African rhythms, jazz, soul, funk, gospel – we brought it all in.
Let’s talk about your original music. What’s the status on this collaboration with The Martinez Brothers?
We’re really excited about it. We were able to do something pretty special. We got together in the studio about a year ago in Ibiza – we’d always talked about coming together in the studio and doing something – and we just started coming up with tracks. It was just happening, you know? I had such a good time with them. Every time I went in we’d make like three or four tracks. We have an album’s worth of material now because we went in about four times just to record, and in that little bit of time we had like 12-14 tracks, so it turned into something bigger than just getting together to do a track.
But the first track we decided to use as a single, when we were working on it, one of the guys said that we needed to get a Spanish-voice kind of sample, and I was thinking to myself, what do I have that’s special that not many people have? I had my uncle’s [Héctor Lavoe’s] outtakes from studio sessions because I had done some work with Fania Records, so I had some Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón recordings. In some of the tracks, they had so much fun going on. In the background you could hear it when you strip everything down, Héctor’s talking to all the guys, yelling and screaming, like a party. So I said that was what we needed to put on this track.
So when we put it on, it just fit like a glove. It was pretty cool because it wasn’t the usual kind of track that you’d hear Héctor Lavoe on, but it made sense. It sounds like there’s a lot of fun going on. We tested it out in the clubs and people were really reacting to it, so it felt pretty good.
I reached out to Fania and told them that The Martinez Brothers and I had worked on this record together and we had sampled Héctor from one of the outtakes. I asked if we could feature him because I thought it would be special to have Louie Vega and The Martinez Brothers featuring Héctor Lavoe. They said yes, and I was blown away. So I want to thank Michael Rucker and the whole Fania family for allowing us to use his name. He’d never been featured before other than as a Fania artist, so to be with us is a total dream.
That’s three generations of powerhouses right there.
That’s why, for The Martinez Brothers and me, it was very important to kind of make a statement with that first single, and I think it was perfect because showing those three generations unifying really means a lot.
Speaking of Héctor and Fania, Latin music and artists have experienced a resurgence of sorts in pop music in the last year, with the most notable example being Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito.” It’s even started to penetrate more mainstream dance music. Given your Puerto Rican heritage, what do you make of this phenomenon?
I think it’s great that you have non-Spanish people singing in Spanish. They’re singing that hook and getting interested in it. I was in the hotel room just now and I’m hearing Whoopi Goldberg talking about “Despacito” and saying that her niece listens to it and sings the hook, and she sang a little bit of the hook, and I was like wow, you have Whoopi singing in Spanish. That was beautiful! So for me, that song has opened a lot of doors. It’s got a lot of people interested in singing Spanish-language music, which is hard for a Spanish record to be so huge. Before, we had “Macarena” and things like that, that were phenomenons or whatever, but “Despacito” has brought the reggaeton sound with Daddy Yankee, one of the heroes of reggaeton music. I think it was the perfect combination of all that that made the record a huge success.
Has house music ever been affected by these cyclic Latin explosions?
When it comes to us and when we make house music, Kenny Dope and I, and a lot of what we’ve done, I think what separated us from other house producers was that we brought a lot of culture into house music. So for us, it was important to bring Latin rhythms, African rhythms, jazz, soul, funk, gospel – we brought it all in. For me, in a lot of music, if you listen to the ones that moved a lot of people, there was some kind of Latin element in it, congas playing or something rhythmic happening. You can’t deny the energy that Latin rhythm brings, whether it’s in an R&B song, or soul song, or house song, even a rock song. You listened to what Santana did back in the day. So for me, it always does something to all kinds of music.
Those rhythms have been especially prominent in your Nuyorican Soul and Elements of Life projects. Will we be hearing from either of them soon?
You will, actually. With Elements of Life – usually it’s a huge band, it’s 15 people traveling, 12 on stage. I had to create a smaller band that I could travel with so I could do more of the Blue Notes, the Ronnie Scott’s, a lot of the cool jazz venues… I decided to create a band called EOL Soulfrito, and with this band, it’s only 8 people. We have Josh Milan who plays keyboards and sings lead, Axel Tosca on keyboards, Luisito Quintero on percussion and drums, and Gene Perez on bass.
I put out a single called “Upright Love,” which has been out for the last six months or so, and now I’m coming out with the second one, which is called “Soulfrito Burnin’.” A lot of the music is inspired by groups like Semande, War, Barabas, Johnny Hammond, Herbie Hancock; it’s a mixture of sounds with a club backbeat. That’s coming out in March, and it’s going to lead to an album, which is my next project for 2019 after I finish this disco album.
I’d like to travel to different cities and collaborate with different artists with my rhythm section, EOL Soulfrito. So it’s almost like we’re taking this trip around the world to different cities, most of them in the US. I want to go to places where I know there’s a strong jazz movement, so I know of these young jazz musicians who are doing wonderful work out there. I want to go to Philly to see my boy Jazzy Jeff and his crew, and a lot of Philly musicians who are amazing. I also want to go to Detroit; I talked to Carl Craig about working, also Moodymann, so I’m going to combine our world with some of the jazz world and this young jazz movement that’s happening.
In LA, here, you have Kamasi Washington, Thundercat; I love those guys and what they do and the way they’re coming together to make all this great music. I want to approach them, too, and musicians in London. I went to this place called Total Refreshment Centre and was blown away by seeing all these jazz musicians who were in their early 20s. I went to New York Jazz Fest and saw a musician from London who happened to come to New York when I went back home, so I saw the same artist that I met at the Total Refreshment Centre and said you know what? This is a calling.
Also Luisito works with Chick Corea, so I want to approach some legends like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock… it’s going to be a really special project.
What else do you have coming up this year?
I’m doing a remix of Luther Vandross. They found two tracks of his that he recorded in 1979 that never came out, so I went in and did my thing to it, and we brought back the original background singers that worked with Luther Vandross: Cindy Mizelle, Lisa Fischer, Fonzi Thornton, Paulette McWilliams. It was awesome. That’s coming out early summer.
I also did a collaboration with Joseph Capriati for his album, and The Martinez Brothers and I are going to finish the work we started and hopefully have an album out in 2019.
Also, Masters At Work, we’re going to release new music finally. We’ve done a few Kenlou releases that we’re putting out. We’re going to revamp the MAW Records label, so there’s going to be a lot of people we’re going to bring in to do some remixes, and we’re also going to remix a lot of our music and beef up a lot of the old tracks and put it out again for the younger generation. So Kenlou’s going to lead to new Masters At Work, and hopefully that leads to new Nuyorican Soul.